Interpreting Figurative Language

What is Figurative Language?

Figurative language is a type of literary device that authors often use. Figures of speech are expressions that convey meanings beyond their literal definition. These include metaphors, similies, personifications and hyperboles. 

Literal language is a type of language that means exactly what it says The words convey meaning according to their dictionary definitions. For example, if someone says, “It’s raining outside,” they mean that water is falling from the sky. There’s no hidden or symbolic meaning. 

When you read a sentence, ask yourself, “Does this make sense if I take the words at face value?” If the answer is yes, it’s likely literal language.

Figurative LanguageIntended Effect
Metaphor – A direct comparison between two unlike things.Create a vivid image or convey a complex idea in a simple way.
Personification – Giving human characteristics to non-human entities.Make descriptions more vivid, foster emotional connection and deepen understanding.
Alliteration – The repetition of the same initial sound in a series of words.Make phrases more memorable or create a rhythmic effect.
Irony – Saying one thing but meaning another, often the opposite.Create a humorous or dramatic effect
Oxymoron – Combining two contradictory terms.Create a dramatic effect or reveal deeper truths.
Hyperbole – An exaggerated statement.Create emphasis, a dramatic effect or a comedic effect.

Interpreting Figurative Language

Once you’ve identified a piece of figurative language, try to interpret its meaning. Ask yourself:

  • Who’s saying this?
  • What emotions are present?
  • What things are being compared or linked?
  • How does this comparison enhance your understanding of the character, setting or situation?

Tip: Create a chart with columns for the type of figurative language, the exact quote, your interpretation and any notes on the context or effect.

Themes, Imagery and Emotional Impact

Figurative language can add depth to a text’s themes, create vivid imagery and evoke emotions. To understand these connections, answer the following questions:

  • Themes – How does the figurative language highlight or explore the text’s themes? Does it offer any insights or criticisms?
  • Imagery – How does the figurative language contribute to the text’s imagery? Does it help you visualise a character, setting or event more vividly?
  • Emotional Impact – How does the figurative language affect your emotions as a reader? Does it make you feel sympathy, fear, excitement or another emotion?

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